In the future your trip to the dentist could be accompanied by a relaxing trip to a virtual beach, as research has found such VR experiences reduce anxiety and pain during routine dental procedures.
The research, which was conducted by scientists from the Universities of Plymouth, Exeter and Birmingham in conjunction with Torringon Dental Practice in Devon, the UK, found that patients who ‘walked’ around a VR beach experienced less pain and anxiety during procedures such as fillings and tooth extractions than without VR, and more positively recalled the treatment a week later.
VR is already being hesitantly explored by dentists as a way of making the experience less hellish for patients, but the research is one of the first to show a quantifiable benefit, as well as identify the type of VR experiences that best help patients.
“The use of virtual reality in health care settings is on the rise but we need more rigorous evidence of whether it actually improves patient experiences,” said study lead author Dr Karin Tanja-Dijkstra. “Our research demonstrates that under the right conditions, this technology can be used to help both patients and practitioners.”
Interestingly, the study also found that not all VR experiences are equal when it comes to improving patient experience. Study participants were allocated into three groups, one which had no VR experience at all, one which explored a VR beach and one that visited a VR city.
In both VR cases the participants wore a standard headset and explored using a controller, but only the beach – a virtual version of Wembury beach in Devon, the UK, shown in the video above – reported an improved experience.
This shows the importance of the VR experience providing a relaxing environment, something the researchers anticipated the beach would provide.
“We have done a lot of work recently which suggests that people are happiest and most relaxed when they are at the seaside,” said study co-author Dr Mathew White, from the University of Exeter. “So it seemed only natural to investigate whether we could “bottle” this experience and use it to help people in potentially stressful healthcare contexts.”
“The level of positive feedback we got from patients visiting Virtual Wembury was fantastic,” added Melissa Auvray, a dentist from Torrington Practice who was involved in the research. “Of course, as dentists we do our very best to make the patient feel as comfortable as possible but we are always on the lookout for new ways to improve their experiences.”
The research, which was published today in the journal Environment & Behaviour, also demonstrated that VR in such settings was not just about distracting patients from the unpleasant reality they found themselves in, but to provide a relaxing alternative.
“That walking around the virtual city did not improve outcomes shows that merely distracting the patients isn’t enough, the environment for a patient’s visit needs to be welcoming and relaxing,” added University of Plymouth project coordinator Dr Sabine Pahl.
Having shown the benefits for dentistry, the researchers now plan to investigate the benefits for other healthcare environments where a relaxing alternative to the reality could help improve patient experience.
“It would be interesting to apply this approach to other contexts in which people cannot easily access real nature, such as the workplace or other healthcare situations,” said Pahl.